WASHINGTON — Michael Carter-Williams didn’t have to worry.
He could look up to Section 112 and see his family surrounded by Orange.
They made the trip from Massachusetts to Washington, leaving behind what they had lost in the fire that destroyed their Hamilton home, taking their minds off the tragedy and picking up life in the moment they had in front of them.
It was the Sweet 16, Syracuse was facing top-seeded Indiana, and Carter-Williams was the player that turned the key to the Orange offense.
He had 4 steals, 1 block, and 6 rebounds, but after spending all season as an assist man, he picked Thursday night to put on a scoring show.
He weaved together a career-high 24 points in Syracuse’s 61-50 win, hitting 9 of 19 shots and knocking down three 3-pointers.
The last 3-pointer came midway through the second half, but it was ostensibly the dagger.
Brandon Triche gathered an offensive rebound, and scrambled to bounce the ball out to a teammate.
The ball rolled like a tumbleweed out to the perimeter. Carter-Williams met it at the 3-point line. He had so much time he could have had a heart-to-heart with the ball before shooting.
The ball splashed in. The Verizon Center lit up. The Orange took a 51-37 lead. The Hoosiers’ backs were broken. The Orange’s second consecutive trip to the Elite Eight was punched.
“I think I started getting some easy buckets, getting some steals, and that got me going a little bit,’’ said Carter-Williams. “Coach told me if they go under the screen knock ’em down and that’s exactly what I did. That just got me in a groove.”
Triche scored 14 points and C.J. Fair added 11. But the key was a relentless defense that held Indiana to its lowest point total all season.
From the start, Carter-Williams was part of the defensive clamp-down, gladly taking Indiana’s turnovers (19) and running with them.
“That was our game plan to come in here and just use our length against them and just get in the passing lanes and force them into some turnovers,’’ said Carter-Williams. “It was just an all-around effort and everyone played so well.”
On one play, he picked Christian Watford’s pocket, quickly looked up court, and hit Triche with an outlet for an easy dunk.
On another, with Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell doing well over the speed limit pushing the ball up court, Carter-Williams swiped the ball at midcourt, sprinted the other way, checked his rearview for the oncoming defender, used his body to shield any block attempt, and got the layup to go.
It was part of a methodical 9-0 burst that let the Orange get comfortable early on.
Turnover by turnover, Indiana dug a ditch for itself, the deepest it’s been in all year.
In the first half alone, six Hoosiers combined to commit 11.
“Our zone is great,’’ said Carter-Williams. “We’re very long in the zone and we just contest every shot and either get a blocked shot or hope they miss and force them into a tough shot. So we did a great job.”
The Orange went into the half up, 34-22. It was the Hoosiers’ lowest first-half point total all season and the biggest halftime deficit they had faced.
Before that, the most they had trailed at the break was 3.
Whether it was from the floor (7 of 19), from beyond the arc (1 of 7) or at the line (7 of 12), the Hoosiers shot poorly in every phase in the first half.
Handing the Orange extra possessions (Syracuse took 30 shots to Indiana’s 19 in the first half) only added to their issues.
Even with early foul trouble forcing Rakeem Christmas, one of their better rebounders, to sit early, the Orange kept the battle on the boards close (17 to Indiana’s 13, 4 to 3 on the offensive glass) and controlled the paint (22-16).
In a game where trips to the line came at the cost of fouls you could hear clear across the gym, Indiana’s Cody Zeller (10 points) and Victor Oladipo (16) took the blows to get to the line but then clanged the shots once there.
Indiana coach Tom Crean had no choice but to exhaust all options.
Late in the first half, he tried a zone, then early in the second, he went with a full-court press.
No matter what he tried, Syracuse had an answer.
Moreover, he could do nothing about Carter-Williams, who had the night of his life at the time he and his family needed it most.
“My mom was up in the stands watching,’’ said Carter-Williams. “I know my little brothers were somewhere watching the game at a friend’s house. But I bet you that they’re proud and I’m just happy to put a smile on everyone’s face.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.